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More on Karmarkar...

I was recently browsing through an excellent collection of pictures of Karmarkar's work. An avid admirer had painstakingly photographed the display in the Vinayakrao Karmarkar museum and then uploaded it. My heartfelt thanks and good wishes goes to him, and to the person who has sent me the link. This will atone for the shocking lack of internet content on this great Indian sculptor, who is largely unknown around the world, but one of the best the planet has ever spawned.

In an era of temporary sculptures, in which even the act of sculpting is supposedly a performance art, and sound, light, kinetic, sand and ice sculptors abound, dwelling on Karmarkar's art is like discussing art history. Or is it? He needs be rediscovered, and rightfully placed alongside the recognized greats of the world.

Karmarkar descends from a tradition of sculpting which is at least as old as the Indus valley civilization. The soul of this ancient land is palpable in his works - a timeless quality which will not diminish with the ever changing definitions of what constitutes the avant garde. Unlike the great Bernini's and Canova's, who had to express largely within the confines stipulated by religious patronage, Karmarkar sculpted ordinary human beings. He sculpted you, he sculpted me and the fisherwoman considering her day's catch. No grand themes moved him, no supernatural melodrama guided his sensitive fingers. He was perfectly at ease sculpting eternal, everday life out of simple clay.

Where do I place him in the pantheon of distinguished sculptors? His zeal for physical realism alludes to the ancient Greeks, his style of posing in contrapposto sometimes reminiscent of Polykleitos' work. But thats where it stops. Enter the world of a dreamy Indian artist who is lost in his love for nature. Its as if he cannot have enough of this world which abounds with all things beautiful. Hungry eyes take in every minute detail - from the suggestions of lashes in the demure, downturned eyes of the fishergirl, to the slightly wrinkled fishnet at her feet. And the sculpture in which a lady is carrying a small container on her head and a pot in her right hand - Karmarkar's fingers lovingly shape the frayed edge of the sari, like a concerned and protective lover, so that the unclad breast is not exposed. She is poor, and proud. She is looking straight at us, as if to defy the lascivious gaze, and yet it doesn't make us feel guilty. It gives us a sense of oneness with her and her surroundings. Her regal bearing tells us that the nobility of spirit remains unaffected by physical circumstances. And that is where Karmakar is so unique, so at his best! He is the master of the subtle.

While Bernini is all about ecstacy and exuberance, it is Canova with whom I can perhaps identify karmarkar to some extent. Canova's Magdalen, the great weight of sadness so beautifully expressed in the way her arms are resting on her lap, speaks of a very delicate sensitivity. Which is also what Karmarkar is all about. And yet, if you look closely at the faces of Canova's creations, and then at those of the Indian master, the difference is apparent.

Even as I type these words, I flick through a series of closeups of Karmarkar's works - and it surprises me again and again how subtle the expressions are, and yet so apt to the context.

1) The little girl of ten or eleven, carrying her baby sibling and looking like a mini-Mother India - her face flush with the glory of responsibility, love and command.

2) The woman carrying a pitcher at her hip, eyebrows slightly vexed at the drudgery of day-to-day routine, an expression of quiet determination on her face, not yielding, never giving up. She is a mother, she is a wife, she is a woman who is soldiering on.

3) The young woman in her twenties, standing with a baby in her arms and a burlap sack at her feet - a look of happy contentment on her face, so apparent in the glow emanating from those smooth, rounded cheeks. And the look on that little boy's face, what is it? Shy curiosity, smug at the sense of safety in mommy's bosom?

4) The young lady sitting, her left arm outstretched, palm turned outwards, while a cow behind her is tugging at the hay. She is not begging, of that I'm sure. That is not a beggar's imploring expression. She must be selling something, and waiting in anticipation. She is perhaps a little bit impatient and irritated, as the customer counts out the coins.

Karmarkar could have sculpted faces all his life, his place in the ranks of the great ones would have still been assured. I have not seen many sculpted faces with such a variety of emotions expressed with so much subtlety.

This brings to mind the contemporary Australia born, London based Ron Mueck, who casts maquettes made of clay in silicon and fibreglass . For the sake of realism he uses real human hair, punching in individual strands at needlepoint into the soft silicone. His skill, and the range of artistically muted expressions is undoubted, and this is where I can draw a parallel with Karmarkar. But there are two major differences.

Karmarkar doesn't have the advantage of using color or real hair, or even real cloth to drape his models. The sari billowing out ever so diaphaneously in his figures is cast in stone. It is his magical skill which creates the illusion of lightness. And the hint of blush on the face of one of his glorious nudes is imagined - he makes us imagine it, and doesn't use acrylic color to paint the desired hue.

The second difference is the spirit of happiness which exudes from his work. He must have been a peaceful man, a man happy with life. Spending time in front of his timeless creations can actually be therapeutic, and I don't think I'm exaggerating at all. There is a meditative quality in his 'stone people,' and before you have realized it, the strains of a masterfully rendered music has had you completely immersed. One cannot miss the harmony in all his creations, his entire oevure is about harmony. It is perhaps best symbolized in the form of that young woman sitting cross-legged. Its a small work, stacked along with a number of other smaller works in the museum, something you might miss in the splendour of the other, larger figures.

She is sitting with her legs crossed, knees drawn up to her chest, hands loosely clasped across the shin. She is bare-shouldered, wearing a sari. Her eyes are gazing onto infinity, the muscles of her forehead completely relaxed, lazy eyebrows outlining a distant expression. She is here, but again she isn't. Karmarkar has turned her into stone in this perfect moment of equilibrium between the physical and the metaphysical, the mortal and the transcendent.

There should be a deluge of material on the net about him. As an Indian, I almost feel guilty that Karmarkar is not accessible to most art loving people on the planet.


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